If stress is bad, why do we feel such a rush of pleasure after successfully facing a challenge? Why does a gruelling examination or giving a public speech lead to a feeling of euphoria when they are over? Some people do best under a deadline. For them, it may be the only time they can function. But what is it that causes us to feel so good after gasping our way through an exercise routine?
Stress is not always bad. Nature has equipped us with the means to overcome stress – a philosophical view of stress might claim that the meaning of life is facing and overcoming challenging circumstances, since this leads to wisdom and understanding, and makes us better equipped to deal with the next onset of problems. This is also true at the molecular level. Exposure to low levels of stress, such as exercise, irradiation or free radicals, leads to a cascade of maintenance and repair. Stress therefore makes our cells better equipped to repair DNA and proteins and to remove toxins. A little bit of stress – psychological or physical – tells our body to activate its anti-oxidant mechanisms and to switch on the defenses against free radicals, which are responsible for molecular ageing. The stress hormone cortisol in small doses can also activate the immune system. Stress therefore makes us stronger by increasing our defence mechanisms; it is an adaptive survival response.
How does this fit into the current trend in stress avoidance techniques? In nature, short-term stressful events are exactly what we are made for – but it is the chronic, unrelenting high-levels of stress that eventually lead to overload, a point at which our body is unable to repair itself following a stressful event, since the stress never goes away. High doses of cortisol suppress the immune system. Healthy ageing therefore must involve stressful situations micro-managed by the organism in such a way that it has the chance not only to repair the damage caused by the emotionally or physically stressful events but even profit from them.
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Photo Credit: Victoria Nevland via Compfight cc